Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

19 Aug, 2002

Wider Security Concerns Over Baggage Thefts At Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport

The recent spate of thefts and pilferage from baggage at Don Muang airport has again raised serious concern about security, but airport and airline executives are undecided who should take responsibility or what should be done next.

Incidents of pilferage began after the Airports Authority of Thailand stopped securing checked-in baggage with a wrap-around plastic strap and replaced it with a little sticker to be affixed on each piece after it has been X-rayed.

This made bags much easier to open, hence creating a major security lapse. Still, the AAT insists that the change was well within its legal and international responsibilities and that it had been approved after lengthy discussions at various levels with representatives of security companies, the airlines and Ministry of Transport and Communications officials.

The MoTC’s Permanent Secretary Dr Srisook Chandrangsu himself chaired one of the committees that discussed the change.

The AAT cited a number of reasons to justify it. These included the frequent breakdown of the strapping machines resulting in inconvenience to passengers and a waste of maintenance budget, the additional space allocation required, the problem posed to staff who have to load the baggage into the x-ray machines and the “serious air pollution” caused by the strapping machines “as a result of using heat to mesh the ends of the plastic strap”.

The main reason, however, was cost. The total of 35 strapping machines cost 875,000 baht, and the rolls of plastic strap 2,137,560 baht annually. Maintenance of the machines was about 196,000 baht annually. All costs were rising yearly. Each of the strapping machines has a life-span of five years after which they have to be replaced.

By contrast, a study by the Safety and Security Division of Bangkok Airport said that if a sticker was used, it would speed up baggage processing by seven times. This will allow the airport to process the same number of passengers through fewer x-ray checkpoints, thereby lowering staff and budgets. Moreover, a sticker would only cost 0.20 baht per piece of baggage while the strap costs 0.31 baht per piece.

At one of the many committee meetings at which this issue was discussed, it was agreed that a sticker would be more “appropriate and economical.” More detailed discussions focussed on the type and colour of stickers, and where they should be affixed.

In the minutes of one committee meeting, the discussion was recorded thus: “The main objective of using sticker or strap is only to show that the baggage have been x-rayed, not to prevent belongings from being stolen.”

Asked for a comment, an AAT spokesperson last week faxed this columnist the airport’s obligations under the security regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation which she said prove the AAT’s position.

Article 4.5.6 of the ICAO security manual says: “Strict control should be exercised over tags used to identify cabin and checked/hold baggage so as to ensure that such baggage does not by-pass the screening process. Passengers should also be encouraged to lock their checked baggage so as to make it difficult for unauthorised persons to use such baggage as a means of committing an offence.”

The AAT’s interpretation of this regulation is that once the bags have been x-rayed, it needs to only affix the baggage with some indication of that. Thereafter, the responsibility passes into the airlines’ hands. The AAT spokesperson also said that other airports in Europe and Australia all use stickers.

She declined comment on which method — the sticker or the strap — was safer and more secure, a question that has become critical as it can be proven that incidents of pilferage increased after the sticker began to be used earlier this year.

Moreover, if bags can be opened to take items out, items can also be put in, which is much more important issue for overall aviation security. Airline officials noted that the most obvious area of lax security at Bangkok airport was from the time bags are x-rayed to the time they are checked-in. Even after the bag has been x-rayed, and hence considered secure, passengers can easily slip anything into it while waiting in the check-in queue.

Various airline officials admitted that they had grave misgivings about the change but could do little to prevent it. This was because many of their own airports back home are using stickers. Moreover, cost-factors reign supreme, including within their own airlines, thus making it impossible for them to object to the cost-saving rationale of airports.

All agreed that the wording of the ICAO security manual was loose and lax. The question of whose responsibility is also important because it will impact on who foots the bill for what happens next.

An investigation into the pilferage cases led to the discovery that a guard of one of the security agencies working at Bangkok airport had been terminated, but did not return his security pass. This allowed him to get access to the airport where he ensconced himself in the baggage loading area.

Other airline officials said they believed that some of the security staff were working together on this. When the bags went through the x-ray machine, those with something worth stealing were secretly identified, such as by affixing the sticker somewhere else on the bag rather than where it should be affixed — along the zipper, on top of the lock/keyhole or along the ‘mouth’ of the bag.

The AAT managing director inspected this pilferage area last May. The former guard has also reportedly been arrested, but nothing was announced in order to prevent embarrassment and more detailed questions about how he managed to get past security. Further information on this was not immediately available.

Comments are closed.